The subject for Day 29 of my 30-day Song Challenge is “A song that breaks your heart“, and there are few songs I can think of that are more heartbreaking than “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by the legendary Bonnie Raitt. Aside from the death of a loved one or a beloved pet, unrequited love is probably one of life’s most painful experiences. Many of us – me included – have been in romantic situations where someone we loved did not feel the same toward us, and vice versa. And sometimes, our guilt from the pain we’ve caused by not loving someone who loves us can feel almost as bad as not having our love returned by another.
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” was co-written by Nashville country music songwriters Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, who took many months and numerous rewrites until they were happy with the song. In an interview with Peter Cooper for the Nashville Tennessean, Shamblin remarked: “We wrote, most every week, in Mike’s basement, and we’d worked on this song for more than six months. One day, he said, ‘Come up to the living room,’ where his piano was. He sat down and started playing this melody, and it was one of the most moving pieces of music I’d heard. I mean, it hit me in a hard way … Instantly, I knew it was the best thing I’d ever been a part of.”
They originally wrote the song as a fast, bluegrass number, but upon slowing the tempo down considerably, they realized the song became even more powerful and compelling. They had three artists in mind for the song – Bonnie Raitt, Bette Midler and Linda Ronstadt – with Raitt eventually winning out. She recorded the song for her eleventh studio album Luck of the Draw (1991), with both song and album co-produced by Raitt and record producer Don Was. She recorded the vocal in just one take, later saying that the song was so sad that she could not recapture the emotion: “We’d try to do it again and I just said, ‘You know, this ain’t going to happen.‘” (Wikipedia)
Over a sparse soundscape of gentle instrumentals, highlighted by a beautiful piano accompaniment by Bruce Hornsby, Raitt sings of the heartache of unrequited love with a sad, understated resignation, while maintaining her own self respect.
Turn down the lights Turn down the bed Turn down these voices inside my head Lay down with me Tell me no lies Just hold me close, don't patronize Don't patronize me 'Cause I can't make you love me if you don't You can't make your heart feel something it won't Here in the dark, in these final hours I will lay down my heart and I'll feel the power But you won't, no you won't 'Cause I can't make you love me, if you don't I'll close my eyes, then I won't see The love you don't feel when you're holding me Morning will come and I'll do what's right Just give me till then to give up this fight And I will give up this fight 'Cause I can't make you love me if you don't You can't make your heart feel something it won't Here in the dark, in these final hours I will lay down my heart and I'll feel the power But you won't, no you won't 'Cause I can't make you love me, if you don't
The song was a fairly big hit for Raitt, reaching #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #6 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It also reached #4 on Canada’s Adult Contemporary chart.
And here’s her stunning performance of the song, with Bruce Hornsby on piano, at the 1992 Grammy Awards